Jacob Riis, Racist Huckster?

Jacob Riis.jpgOur friend refers to his tiny apartment on the top floor of a squat Lower East Side building that has seen better days as “the Jacob Riis penthouse.” And squalid tenements are what most people associate with the Danish-born police reporter and social reform photographer. But a new book points out that he was more than a muckracker. Rediscovering Jacob Riis: Exposure Journalism and Photography in Turn-of-the-Century New York, by Bonnie Yochelson and Daniel Czitrom, highlights “the contradictory elements of Riis’s life and work,” notes Sewell Chan in today’s New York Times.

He was an entertainer, a self-promoter, an evangelical, and a political conservative who had little faith in the power of government to correct social ills, arguing instead for Christian charity. He held views on race and ethnicity that would be considered offensive today. And he declared in his 1901 autobiography that he was “no good at all as a photographer.”

Also included in that autobiography was a chapter Riis gave over to his first wife, Elisabeth, to write about herself. The chapter was fairly brief, however, because Riis cut her story short, noting, “It is not good for a woman to allow her to say too much.” But that’s nothing compared to good ‘ol Jake’s thoughts on Jewish people, not to mention the Chinese (who had the nerve not to allow him into their homes to be photographed…he chalks it up to an opium-fueled white slavery scheme). We’re guessing the new book probably won’t make the summer reading list over at New York’s P.S. 126 (The Jacob Riis Community School).